Raw Concepts: Framing

A frame is an emotional or mental state.¬† Framing is the act of creating a frame. Let’s use the concept of loss aversion, the idea that people are more concerned with minimizing possible losses than maximizing possible gains, to illustrate how framing works.

Consider a study done by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1981. They gave people two problems involving a fact pattern about 600 people affected by a hypothetical deadly disease:

  • option A saves 200 people’s lives (framed to emphasize loss aversion)
  • option B has a 33% chance of saving all 600 people and a 66% possibility of saving no one (framed to emphasize maximum possible gain)

72% of participants chose option A, whereas only 28% chose option B.

The second problem, given to another group, offered the same fact pattern, but described thusly:

  • if option C is taken, then 400 people die (framed to emphasize loss aversion)
  • if option D is taken, then there is a 33% chance that no people will die and a 66% probability that all 600 will die (framed to emphasize maximization possible gain)

You may have noticed that option C asked of this group is effectively the same as option A presented to the first group, while option D is the same as option B above. Yet in this second group, 78% of participants chose option D, but only 22% chose option C, the reverse¬† of the first group’s results.

This discrepancy in results comes from the framing effect. If you frame an option as loss aversion, people are more likely to choose it. Note: Do not get caught up on the loss aversion example. Framing can be done by exploiting any logical fallacy. I just used loss aversion as an example because it’s the most recent concept we’ve discussed, but framing can be used to influence people by exploiting any number of cognitive biases they have.

People who administer polls use the framing effect in how they word questions to influence the results all the time. A good rule to learn, and one we will revisit often in the future, is that framing reveals ulteriority. Or stated another way, if you can spot the frame, you can spot the ulterior motive. More on this in later installments.